When a refugee placement organization sought to send another group here, it followed the rules, officially asking Burleigh County: Can we?
Divergent views poured into Peluso’s mailbox, some saying refugees cost taxpayers too much money and others urging the commission to grant safe harbor to people who ran from war, rape and terrorism in their homelands. The commission would have to decide, with a public vote on a contentious national issue. This was not Bingo.
“I’m just a county commissioner,” said Peluso, a 67-year-old retired parks and recreation manager who ran the city’s ice rinks and public pools and coached hockey on the side. “How do I muddle through that?”
Deciding whether to be among the first places in the United States to deny additional refugees under Trump’s new rule narrowly divided this county on the banks of the Missouri River, the seat of a state capital nearly 1,300 miles from the nearest point on the U.S. southern border and 1,500 miles from Washington.
Similar discussions have been unfolding in dozens of communities nationwide. The town and county boards of Appomattox County, Va., voted not to allow refugees because of financial concerns, and Beltrami County, Minn., one of the state’s poorest jurisdictions, voted Tuesday against resettling refugees despite not having any relocated there in at least five years, local officials said.
Trump issued the order after setting the annual national refugee cap for this fiscal year at a historic low of 18,000, down from 110,000 in 2016, saying he is giving local governments a say in an issue that has been imposed on them for years.
“You should be able to decide what is best for your own cities and for your own neighborhoods, and that’s what you have the right to do right now, and believe me, no other president would be doing that,” Trump said at a rally in Minnesota.
Refugee resettlement agencies have filed a federal lawsuit in Maryland to block the executive order from taking effect, arguing that it violates long-standing federal policies to welcome refugees.
Trump administration lawyers defend the policy in court filings, calling the new approach a “common-sense requirement” for “enhanced consultation” with local governments that they say should take place before refugees are settled “within their borders.”
More than 70 people showed up at the federal courthouse in Greenbelt, Md., on Wednesday for a hearing in the case. Primarily from faith-based immigration and refugee organizations, they said the policy is an illegal attempt to shut down the U.S. program and is at odds with American values. Protesters chanted: “Open hearts and open doors.”
In court, District Judge Peter J. Messitte repeatedly expressed deep skepticism that Trump has the power to allow individual governors and county executives to block the settlement of refugees in their jurisdictions.
“On what authority is the president acting?” Messitte asked the government’s attorney. “You’re arguing he has discretion to change the law?”
Justice Department lawyer Bradley Humphreys said the administration’s order to obtain written consent does not give local officials “veto” power, but rather requires additional information from leaders of the communities where the refugees will be living. Already, he noted, 41 states have given that consent.
But the judge took issue with the government’s characterization that the requirement is merely a request for “information” and suggested the president’s order would effectively put refugee resettlement agencies out of business.
“States can simply say, ‘no,’ and that’s it,” Messitte said, asking later why the administration was changing a long-standing practice. “Why change it now? Is it purely a political thing?”
Lawyers for the three resettlement agencies behind the federal lawsuit asked the judge to issue an order that would block the policy nationally. The consent requirement, they said, has caused chaos and confusion, and it threatens to dismantle a network of providers that have helped refugees find housing, jobs and other services for decades.
“The president has upended the system,” said Melissa Keaney, a lawyer with the International Refugee Assistance Project. “Congress did not give governors and county officials the power to turn away refugees.”
A preliminary decision in the case is expected later this month.
Amid the uncertainty of the new rule, resettlement agencies have been scrambling to secure permission from localities, including some, like Burleigh, that have welcomed refugees for decades. The agencies must obtain approval letters by Jan. 21 if refugees are to start arriving in June.
“I really do think some of this is grandstanding, because at the end of the day, immigration has always been a federal issue,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the nation’s largest resettlement agencies. “No state can actually veto a refugee or other immigrants moving to their state.”
In addition to the 41 governors who have signed letters of acceptance, nearly 100 local governments also have signed on, according to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Dozens of mayors wrote to Trump urging him to rescind the order, noting that refugees buy homes, pay taxes and have included standouts such as Albert Einstein.
At least one mayor, Domenic J. Sarno of Springfield, Mass., has said he would not welcome refugees. The son of Italian immigrants, Sarno recently won a fifth term in a city that is majority black and Hispanic. He has complained for years that the U.S. government has flooded the city with refugees.
“It’s time for other much more affluent communities to take on their fair share,” he wrote in a letter to the editor of the Republican newspaper last month, after the Springfield City Council supported accepting refugees.
City Councilor Michael A. Fenton called Sarno’s decision “absurd” because the state’s Republican governor and leaders of nearby cities had said they would accept refugees — who could then freely move to Springfield.
North Dakota’s governor is among several Republicans who agreed to take refugees. But in Burleigh, home to the state capital of Bismarck, the decision degenerated into jeering, insults and heated online posts. Supporters said they were stunned that the friendly community would consider rejecting refugees. Others said they were called racist or “not Christian” for questioning the program’s cost to taxpayers.
John Ndabunguye, a 23-year-old refugee whose family fled fighting in Congo and landed in Bismarck, said he watched the debate online in disbelief from college in Fargo, where he majors in international studies. He said some residents did not seem to comprehend that refugees had no choice but to seek help in other countries. “It’s either you run or you die,” he said.
In Burleigh, the debate raged for days. Longtime residents say the county is friendly, tightknit, sometimes suspicious of newcomers and resistant to change. They finish church in an hour, sharp, and head to Cracker Barrel; residents’ Christian roots are on display at the state capitol, which hosted a Nativity scene during the holidays.
Though the winters can be inhospitable, the economy is booming. Oil production, the medical industry and construction have been attracting immigrants and U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico. Once they arrive, they find high pay, affordable housing, good schools and plentiful jobs.
Tresor “Trey” Mugwaneza, a 20-year-old college sophomore and Ndabunguye’s younger brother, said he felt welcomed in North Dakota after the United Nations resettled his family there. A local couple took his family under their wing; they refer to them as grandparents. Others taught him and his two brothers to skateboard. Together they tried to bury their sad story of life in Congo, which started out happily, with days spent playing soccer in the hot sun or splashing in the swimming holes with hippos in the distance.
Then the fighting reached their village. Their father was killed. Buildings burned. Their mother disappeared. They fled with a relative to neighboring Burundi and grew up in a church orphanage. Their mother finally found them through the United Nations, which resettled them all in Bismarck. Now, two of the brothers are in college, and their mother cleans houses.
“I’m just a regular, normal person,” Mugwaneza said. “I don’t want people to feel sorry for me.”
But he decided to tell his story at the county commission meeting before the refugee vote, to remind residents that other families still need homes.
Before the vote on Dec. 9, there were hours of public comments.
A project manager said it would be an “embarrassment” if Burleigh were among the first counties to reject refugees. One man offered to donate $25,000 to help refugees. Some pointed out that the county is 89 percent white. Immigrants make up just 2 percent of the population, according to the census. Refugees are an even tinier share.
But others questioned the cost to North Dakota and wondered whether refugees would acclimate to their cities.
Luke Lengenfelder, 45, a lifelong local resident wearing a Trump 2020 baseball cap, said the community should first take care of people who are homeless or addicted to drugs before agreeing to help outsiders.
“I understand it’s not a lot of immigrants,” he said. “But if we have the ability to help people that are here in our community, we should help them first.”
Brian Bitner, chairman of the county commission, grew frustrated with the debate’s tone. He said he had not known that refugee resettlement was going on in Burleigh, and he said he worried that “we have very little information to make an intelligent decision.”
“It should be embarrassing to every one of us that this thing has degenerated into some sort of name calling and racism thing,” said Bitner, who owns a construction company. “We’re better than that, folks.”
The county commissioners were divided. Peluso was frustrated that he couldn’t find out how many refugees were still in Burleigh and had jobs or relied on government assistance.
Retired business executive Kathleen Jones and Jerry Woodcox, the owner of a dry cleaning business, said in interviews that the resettlement agencies provided reports showing that refugees paid taxes and filled vacant jobs.
“Everybody I talked to, not one person said anything negative about the refugees coming in,” said Woodcox, who has long employed refugees as pressers and launderers.
Mark Armstrong, a former Peace Corps volunteer and devout Catholic who sits on the county commission, said he felt it was his duty to welcome those fleeing hardship. He thought it strange, he said, that Trump wanted locals to vote on refugees but not other issues, such as where to build military bases.
“There was never any question in my mind,” Armstrong said.
The commission voted 3 to 2 to accept up to 25 refugees. Armstrong, Jones and Woodcox voted yes. Bitner and Peluso voted no. Peluso supports another vote next year; Trump’s order requires annual local approval.
“I still think it was a good idea that they asked us, that they do give us local control,” Peluso said. “I just feel it’s important that we know what’s going on in our community and we have some say in it.”
Marimow reported from Greenbelt, Md.